The Bhopal gas tragedy case is still meandering on, far from any sort of closure. A court in the US on Friday ruled that neither Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), which owned Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) during the mishap, nor its former chairman, Warren Anderson, was liable for
pollution-related claims by those living around the ill-fated plant. It ruled that the responsibility of cleaning up the area lies with the Madhya Pradesh government. In 1989, UCC paid $470m compensation to the survivors through the Union government, and Dow Chemicals, which bought UCC in 1999, insists that the 1989 settlement resolved all claims against the company. At present, no compensation case relating to the disaster is pending in the Indian courts.
Official estimates say that 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate that had leaked from UCC's factory killed at least 15,000 people within days in December 1984. But the incident turned out to be more than a tragedy for those affected and their families: the way the cases dragged on for years, mismanagement in delivering financial and medical help to the victims and their families, the slow-moving justice system and the Indian government's shifting stand on the case make for a drama that's worthy of the turns and twists in a Hindi film. Last year, new revelations suggested that UCC mooted the idea of a "negotiated settlement" within weeks of the gas leak and it also decided on "the quantum of compensation to be paid to victims as part of the settlement. In exchange, it sought exemption from any liability." The least the Union government could have done was a proper medical evaluation of the effects of the incident on the victims. Though it asked the Indian Council of Medical Research to conduct an intensive study, it barred the institute from publishing its results for nine years. Why? There are no answers. A Right to Information query revealed that the ban was lifted in 1995 but by then the damage was done. Bhopal gas victim activists say that the research work could have helped develop a treatment protocol for the victims besides getting more compensation.
Considering that so many years have passed and not much has moved on Mr Anderson's extradition and liability issues, it is probably time to readjust the focus of the movement, put more pressure on the government to clean up the area and make efforts to improve the medical facilities available to the victims. The demand for Mr Anderson's extradition will probably keep the issue alive to the world at large, but it's time to do a reality check as to whether this will actually be possible or not. The indications are all negative, which means the victims will continue to live in the twilight zone they have inhabited since that fateful night 28 years ago.